West Virginias Geno Smith and USCs Matt Barkley are the top two quarterbacks… (Christopher Jackson / Associated…)
INDIANAPOLIS — At first glimpse, and there's a lot of evaluating to go, West Virginia's Geno Smith and USC's Matt Barkley are the top two quarterbacks in the 2013 draft class.
But, if the past two NFL seasons have demonstrated anything, it's that the quarterbacks on the edge of the spotlight should not be overlooked.
Seattle's Russell Wilson lasted longer in the playoffs than any rookie quarterback, and he was a third-round pick who wasn't expected to start over coveted free agent Matt Flynn.
San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick got to the Super Bowl, and he was a second-round pick in 2011 who only took over when Alex Smith suffered a concussion during the season.
So even though this isn't considered a strong quarterback class, and teams at the top of the draft will be looking to swing deals to trade down, it doesn't mean teams won't be angling to land some of the less-heralded prospects in this group, such as Syracuse's Ryan Nassib, North Carolina State's Mike Glennon, Tennessee's Tyler Bray, Oklahoma's Landry Jones and Arkansas' Tyler Wilson.
"There's a lot of guys with a lot of talent," Jones said. "I think the further we get into this process I think there's going to be a guy that's going to be coming up and there's going to be somebody that puts himself ahead. And I think it's the guy who's going to work the hardest and the guy who wants it more."
John Elway, the Denver Broncos' top football executive, said there's so much more emphasis on the passing game at all levels — and quarterbacks are groomed so much earlier — that they're more able to make a smooth transition to the pros.
"The training they're getting is getting better and better each year," he said Friday at the scouting combine. "We're getting guys that are much more prepared at that position when they get to the NFL to play it."
What's more, the league is at a crossroads, with quarterback mobility increasingly at a premium and immobile live-in-the-pocket passers looking more like dinosaurs by the day.
In addressing the media Friday, Barkley said that although he's more of a drop-back passer, he's no sitting duck.
"Yeah, I'm the traditional drop-back quarterback," the former USC quarterback said. "At the same time, I believe I have the quickness, the pocket mobility to avoid what it takes to get out of the pocket.
"I think my throwing on the run is great and I have complete confidence in that. I'm not going to be running a 4.3[-second] 40 or anything like that, but how many starting quarterbacks in the league can?"
By his thinking, the position ultimately boils down to who can best operate in the pocket.
"I think in the NFL you're always going to have to be a passer, it's a passing game, and as much as the read option is successful, the Super Bowl winning quarterback is similar to how I play," he said, referring to Baltimore's Joe Flacco. "And that style, that tradition, I don't think that will ever fade."
Bruce Arians, new coach of the Arizona Cardinals, will see plenty of running quarterbacks in his division when he faces the 49ers and Seahawks. But Arians, who coached passers such as Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck, called the read-option fascination "a trend" and said he won't be following suit.
"I'm not a believer in putting my quarterback in harm's way," Arians said. "I think harm will come to them. I'm more of a traditionalist."
The athletic and mobile Smith played in three different systems at West Virginia, among them a read-option scheme, but he's also an adept pocket passer who completed 71.2% of his passes for 42 touchdowns last season.
"I have the ability to run a read option," Smith said. "I don't think that's my game. I don't think my game is predicated around that."
But he was quick to add: "If a coach wants me to, I'll definitely be all for it."
A record five rookie quarterbacks were opening-day starters last season, setting a lofty standard that this class is unlikely to match.
"Those guys changed expectations for many quarterbacks, let alone rookies," Smith said. "That's the one thing I took from it. No matter what age difference, where you come from or what pick you are when you're taken for that role as a quarterback in the NFL, you have to lead by example. That's the thing all those guys did. They set the bar very high. I want to be one of those guys that step in and do the same thing."